Saying Thank You in Korean

While traveling on Holt’s 2012 Adult Adoptee Heritage Tour of Korea, Kim Buckley met the foster family that cared for her before joining her family in the U.S. This piece originally appeared in The Daily Nebraskan, the daily newspaper of The University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Kim with her foster mom and her foster sister, who also helped care for Kim while she was waiting to join her adoptive family in the U.S.

I found out why there is a stereotype of Asians being bad drivers during a trip to South Korea this summer. As it turns out, narrow streets and speeders make for impatient drivers who narrowly avoid accidents.

But that wasn’t the only thing I discovered in Korea.

I recently spent two weeks in Seoul with a tour group organized by my adoption agency. I met my foster mother for the first time on my second day in the city. I felt ridiculous fighting down nervousness of a woman I didn’t even remember.

She had taken care of me for a couple of months before I arrived in the United States when I was 8 months old and she was virtually a stranger to me. But I felt as though I might have a panic attack.

I worried I would somehow let her down. I felt that I wouldn’t be what she expected. I feared that, seeing me, she would somehow be disappointed.

I imagined all of the different ways that the visit could go horribly wrong. I expected the meeting would be awkward, that we would have nothing to talk about. I imagined she could be distant or I would somehow make a social gaffe or I would find some fresh new way to utterly humiliate myself.

As soon as they met, Kim’s foster mom swept her up in a warm hug.

When I walked into the room, I bowed, said “Hello” in Korean and handed her flowers. She immediately swept me into a hug.

I mentally sighed in relief before sitting down with the translator. My foster mother brought her daughter, who helped her raise me, and her grandson with her.

As she talked, I couldn’t take my eyes off the strong, compassionate woman who had taken care of me for six months of my life. When we exchanged gifts, I was extremely grateful that I knew how to say “thank you” in Korean. My foster family murmured their pleased surprise when I said the phrase correctly.

The sound of English and Korean occasionally quieted when ideas got lost in translation, for example, when I described my mom’s job. The flow of conversation never stopped though, as we got to know one another. Her voice soothed me as she told me about my dry skin as a baby and how she had massaged lotion into my body. Her laugh made the smile on my face wider as she described the food she cooked each day.

My foster mother’s eyes got misty as I told her how much I appreciated her taking care of me when I was a baby. My eyes welled with tears, too. I never knew how much I wanted to say those words until they left my mouth.

It was like taking a step back in time for me. My foster mother held my hand almost the entire time. When we went to lunch together, I got a small piece of food on my face and she wiped it away.

I only got to spend two hours with them. I wish I had gotten more time to get to know them better, but I was happy to make this important milestone in my life.

Last year, Kim traveled to Korea again as part of Holt’s gift team — this time with her mom, Mary. Here, they sit in front of Harry and Bertha Holt’s graves at the Ilsan Center, a care center the Holts founded for orphaned and abandoned children.

During my trip I fell in love with Seoul. It was something I had never imagined happening when I signed up for the tour. Growing up, my parents had saved up money since my first birthday to pay for my first trip to Korea. I kept putting it off, saying things like “I’m not ready yet” whenever my mom asked me if I wanted to go.

My trip to Korea helped me realize I had missed out on getting to know my heritage when I was growing up. After the trip, I felt more at ease with myself. Meeting my foster mother helped me on this journey. If the meeting had been a disaster, it would have ruined the entire trip for me.

The trip to Korea was a cultural revolution for me and, despite the cost, the two hours I spent with my foster mother were priceless.

Kim Buckley | Omaha, Nebraska

Read more of Kim’s writing on her blog, kimcbuckley.wordpress.com!

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